Who is Aung San Suu Kyi?
To look at the life of Aung San Suu Kyi and consider the personal cost of standing up for democracy.
by James Lamont
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To look at the life of Aung San Suu Kyi and consider the personal cost of standing up for democracy. (Comment assembly)
Preparation and materials
- Download some pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi from the Internet.
- Imagine how you would feel if you could never leave your country for fear of not being allowed to come back.
Now imagine that you are the acclaimed leader of your people, imprisoned in a dilapidated house, allowed visits only from your jailers, while a cruel dictatorship ravages your country, stifling opposition and keeping the population in poverty.
For long periods of time, this was the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma.
- Suu Kyi
Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, has been called the father of modern Burma. In 1947, he negotiated this Southeast Asian nation’s independence from the British Empire, but soon afterwards, when Aung San Suu Kyi was two, he was assassinated by his enemies.
Suu Kyi went to school and then college in New Delhi, before going to Oxford University in 1969. There she met her future husband. She worked for a while in New York, Japan and Bhutan, but then made her home in England with her husband and two children. In 1985, she studied for a PhD at London University, in the School of Oriental and African Studies.
In 1988 she returned to Burma to look after her mother, who was ill. At the same time she began to work for the pro-democracy movement, which was gaining momentum in Burma. Soon she became the leader of the movement. Inspired by the teaching of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, Suu Kyi began to preach a practical philosophy of non-violence, grounded in Burma’s Buddhist beliefs.
On 8 August 1988 mass demonstrations calling for democracy were viciously suppressed by the army. Estimates of the deaths run into tens of thousands.
On 18 September 1988, the army seized power. In that month Suu Kyi helped to found the National League for Democracy.
The next year she was placed under house arrest – often, in the early years, in solitary confinement. She was kept under house arrest for nearly 15 of the next 21 years (years of house arrest alternated with periods of freedom). That’s longer than many of you here have been alive – just consider that for a moment. Her final release did not come until two years ago: 13 November 2010.
Elections were called in 1990 (just before many of you were born), and the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory, gaining 59 per cent of the votes. The military government, however, declared the election results null and void. There was an international outcry against the military rulers for their brutal policies and refusal to hand over power to the elected leaders. Suu Kyi, meanwhile, was kept under house arrest.
In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Committee stated that ‘Suu Kyi’s struggle is one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades. She has become an important symbol in the struggle against oppression’. Because she was under house arrest, she was unable to travel to Oslo to receive the prize herself and deliver her acceptance speech.
A trying moment came in 1999. Suu Kyi's husband, British academic Dr Michael Aris, was dying of cancer. She had last seen him in 1995. The Burmese government gave her permission to leave the country to visit him but would not guarantee her right to return. She chose to stay and continue her campaigning.
She never saw her husband again. He died on 27 March 1999. During her long house arrest, Suu Kyi was also separated from her two children, who live in the UK.
During Suu Kyi’s time under house arrest, Burma suffered some terrible years:
– in 2007 a campaign of protests against government policies, led by Buddhist monks, was violently suppressed;
– in 2008, Cyclone Nargis ripped through the nation, killing over 100,000 people and causing $10 billion worth of damage.
Towards the end of 1999, Suu Kyi began to be allowed slightly more freedom. She was given permission to meet visiting heads of state, and the leaders of her own party.
The Burmese government announced that there would be a general election, the first in two decades, on 7 November 2010. They also said that Suu Kyi would be released, though she would not be able to stand as a candidate.
On 13 November 2010, she was released from house arrest. Later that month, one of her sons was granted a visa to visit her: they had not seen each other for ten years.
The government’s motives for Suu Kyi's release are not yet known, but it is suspected that it felt confident about its ability to control her supporters. There had also been considerable pressure from world leaders.
- Progress in Burma
Although the story has been touched with tragedy and loss, and much still needs to be done, it appears that progress is being made.
– In October 2011, following discussions with Suu Kyi, the government declared, as a gesture of good faith, that workers would be allowed to join trades unions.
– Also in October 2011, about a tenth of Burma’s political prisoners were freed.
– The new government has introduced broader rights and more accountability.
– In November 2011, in the light of the reforms being made by the government, the National League for Democracy declared its intention to stand for election in a government where military power is shared with civilian democratic leaders. They have said that they wish to work as law-makers within parliament to bring about civil rights and democracy in Burma.
– Suu Kyi has been allowed to visit other countries and meet with foreign leaders.
– In June 2012 she was finally able to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in person and give her acceptance speech.
– In the by-elections in 2012 Suu Kyi gained a seat in parliament and her party won 43 out of 45 seats.
– Burma's changes have opened up trading links with other nations. Burma is a nation rich in natural resources and this could help to drag her citizens out of poverty.
- Suu Kyi's most famous speech argues that what corrupts is not power, but fear. Fear of losing control drives governments to do terrible things, and corrupts good intentions.
Her strength in the face of a seemingly impossible challenge is an example of how to live without succumbing to fear.
Time for reflection
(Show the pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi.)
Sometimes we have to stand up for what we know to be right.
Sometimes that is enormously costly.
For Aung San Suu Kyi, it meant living as a prisoner in one house for almost 15 out of 21 years.
Rarely seeing her husband and not being with him as he died.
Not seeing her children for ten years.
Take a few moments now and consider: What would you be prepared to stand for, at such cost?
Give thanks for the democracy that we live in, and hardly ever think about.
we give thanks for the lives of brave and noble people such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
May we be prepared, and able, to take such a stand should we ever need to.
Help us to overcome our fear, and stand for truth and democracy.
‘Abraham, Martin and John’, recorded by Dion.